Wild Women Walking

When I set out to write this essay, I thought I was going to write a droll list of reasons why I could never have written a book like WILD.

My now dog-eared copy of WILD

My now dog-eared copy of WILD

The list would have included a story about me, a boyfriend from the city, the field behind my parents’ house which shone brightly under the full harvest moon that Labor Day — and what we swore later was a bear. We swore a lot as we raced naked from the beast to the mudroom of my parents’ house where the boyfriend greeted my parents the next morning wearing nothing but a parka and his Yankees hat. Yes, a bear was breathing down our necks and he managed to grab his Yankees hat.

I’ll have to save that story for another day.

I just read WILD again and realized that a discussion of the book deserves more honesty from me.

I am embarrassed to say that the first time I read WILD I was distracted by Cheryl Strayed’s lack of preparation for her journey. I was annoyed by her ignorance about how much to carry, what size boots to wear, how to use a compass — the very things that led to some of the story’s most dramatic moments. I found myself sitting in judgment of her choices when it came to drugs, to sex, to putting down her mother’s ancient horse with the inexpert help of her brother and husband instead of begging, borrowing or stealing the money to use a vet. I found myself cringing at the emotion that trickled, then raged like a river bursting through a dam.

As if I knew for one minute what one would need to carry or wear on an 1,100 mile trek. As if I had never had reckless sex or  stood at a crossroads in my twenties. As if I had never considered for one minute walking out my door, getting in whatever car was running at the moment, and driving until I ran out of gas, and then just walked away from that too.

Not a lot of preparation involved in that scenario.

In my case, there was a child involved. I would not, could not leave him. Ever. In many ways, he became the compass, the navigator for the journey I had chosen. And in all honesty, back then, I would never have thought about hiking 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, snow, rivers.

These days, I think about it. I won’t necessarily do it, but I think about it. Or rather, I think about walking my own version of this journey.

As I read WILD for the second time, I realized my harsh judgments were rooted in a part of me I don’t like to visit very much. It is the place where I stash fear, envy, resentments, and regret. It is the place where I keep the young woman I was and can’t always forgive. I like to keep my distance from her. She embarrasses me. She can hurt me with memories of all the things I did to hurt her and others who loved me.

I retrieved WILD from my bookshelf after watching a small movie, Redwood Highway, about an older woman who walks from her assisted living community center to the Oregon Coast.

Their stories differ considerably. For one thing, Cheryl Strayed really did hike 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, rivers. Redwood Highway is fiction and the character played by Shirley Knight walks only 80 miles along a single road, detouring off the pavement into the woods to camp. Cheryl Strayed was 26. Shirley Knight’s character was in her seventies. The film based on Strayed’s book is going to make millions. Shirley Knight is the only good thing about Redwood Highway, a low-budget affair with uneven writing and a weak plot.

However, each story shows us a woman who sets out alone on a journey that demands much from her body and spirit but makes no promises about what it will deliver. Each woman experiences the wildness of packing a bag, slipping free of the people who would make her stay, and just starts walking because she understands that’s what she needs even if she doesn’t understand why.

In neither case were the women adequately prepared for all that came their way but both were ready. Each woman’s journey was hard, physical, and put her into direct, unshielded contact with nature, humans, and her own demons. We don’t get many stories like this with women at the heart of them, and we don’t get many about older women using their bodies to heal themselves by undergoing an ordeal. I was grateful for that story and I was grateful for the chance to go back and sink into WILD one more time, to walk with a young woman in places I may never see and see them through her eyes, to follow her memories as she faced her losses, made mistakes, made decisions she had to make. I remembered my own twenties with more forgiveness and empathy.

As I read WILD, I remembered reading DRINKING THE RAIN by Alix Kates Schulman. My mother read it and gave it to me back in the late Eighties: At 50, Schulman also walks but only on the Maine island she escapes to for a year, living as simply as possible without electricity, plumbing, cars, or the stimulation of her family and life in Brooklyn. I wonder now if my mother was trying to tell me something about her own need to feel what it was like to walk away, to test herself against the elements. I wonder if she was responding to a need she sensed in me.

Here is what I think now after reading WILD for the second time and remembering all of these stories: there are times when a woman needs to walk and to walk alone. She may not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or live on shellfish and seaweed on a remote Maine island, or even walk 80 miles down a paved highway bearing a load of memories that are far heavier than the pack on her back. She still needs to do it. She needs to walk from the world she knows into one that is foreign and strange and scary. She needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.

She needs stories like WILD, and Redwood Highway and DRINKING THE RAIN to remind her of what she can do.

Then she needs — I need — to start walking.

Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing

Winsor_McCay_-_Little_Sammy_Sneeze_(1905)_book_cover

 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

His Mission Now

IMG_35361717092489

Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project

 

 

Gifts For and From the Dead

IMG_0571

You may see the usual Halloween suspects on Halloween night – zombies, witches, the cast of characters from Game of Thrones. I’m betting you won’t see anyone dressed up as Eric Hill. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Never mind Peter Matthieson, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel Keyes or Joan Rivers.

Well, maybe Joan Rivers.

No matter, I saw them all today in the Ocean Beach branch of the San Diego Public Library artfully arranged among food, drink, paper flowers, candles, and skulls. They were honored in an imaginative ofrenda put together by one of our librarians, Jan Kregers.  She’d put it together to honor authors who died this year, evoking the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead on Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. On that day, family members — ancestors — are honored, remembered, offered their favorite foods. Each offering has a meaning. For a brief time those who still live and those who are gone reach across the divide for a while in memory, stories, lessons learned, laughter shared.

IMG_0567

Seeing these writers together brought their passing home to me in a way that was both sad and joyful. There was a sense of discovery when I learned that Eric Hill was behind all those “Spot” books. When I looked at the photograph of Daniel Keyes, I remembered the first time I read Flowers for Algernon” years ago and how the story and sadness stayed with me for days and how I went back and read it again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time as is Nadine Gordimer. There they both were, their faces framed in magenta, yellow, and lime green paper petals. It was kind of magical, really. And joyful because as sad as losing them was, they each left so much behind: memories, stories, lessons, laughter — and we can enjoy all them any day just by picking up one of their books.

If you were to do your own writer’s ofrenda, which authors would be on it?

Here are some more views of the ofrenda assembled by Jan Kreger:

IMG_0584

 

IMG_0557

IMG_0545

 

IMG_0575

 

IMG_0558

IMG_0564

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!